Bring Out Your Dumb!: The Ficarra Exclusive Concludes

It's been our longest interview for an exclusive yet, Editor John Ficarra, the mind behind MAD. And it ends in the most unexpected place; compassion.

4am isn't even an idea yet. But I'm up, I'm up. Tom Waits drones out in a part of the house that is safe enough and distant enough to not wake She Who Gently Snores. It's a vain prayer for "hair-of-the-dog". A hope that by actually playing "Little Drop of Poison" out loud the song will no longer loop on the iPod of my mind. To no avail thus far. Shakespeare arcs across neurons, "If music be the food of love, play on, something something, surfeit and die". The espresso maker seems now, defiantly somehow, to have simply outwitted my capacities at this hour. It now taunts me by refusing me the simple human dignity of a jolt of yes-please. Another minute and I'll retreat to the pure security of the french press and pre-ground beans. Something about the moment draws me back into what's on the cards for later today, writing up the MAD exclusive. Somewhere, dark and warm and safe, somewhere long before 4am, John Ficarra bestrides my thoughts like an alien armada, about to invade.

"I start my list of Dumb every year on January first", the MAD Editor said to me. "Every year I hope this will be the year that we lose interest in celebs", he said to me. There's an honesty and a poignancy and a deep human frailty to those words when they're spoken by one of the foremost satirists and one of the keenest intellects on the planet. Something about how weakness is maybe a default condition, and great work must be undertaken before it can be forestalled.

Writing about this moment now, days later, the perfect frame seems to be what William Gibson wrote in Zero History the closing chapter of his most recently trilogy. "She really got them", William Gibson writes for his fashion-model-turned-designer Mere, "I'm not sure anyone else ever did to the same extent. She got what I was trying to get away from. The seasons, the bullshit, the stuff that wore out, fell apart, wasn't real. I'd been that girl, walking across Paris, to the next shoot, no money for a Métro card, ad I'd imagined those shoes. And when you imagine something like that, you imagine a world. You imagine the world those shoes came from, and wonder if they could happen here, in this world, the one with all the bullshit".

You imagine a world.

Somewhere long before 4am, it seems John echoing in my mind delineates that precise way that "this world, the one with all the bullshit" is really the worst kind of hell, here right now. William Gibson's Mere is so hopeful, and yet, not naïvely so. "You imagine a world", she says. And then you participate in building that far-more-perfect world here in ours. "Every year I hope that this will be the year", John says, as if in a secret plea. As if some how he's realized that we've all unwittingly acknowledged we're each one of us equally complicit in doing the opposite of what Mere does. As if we're imagining a weaker world, and building it here in our own one.

The beauty of this year's "20 Dumbest" issue of MAD, the true, rare, secret beauty you won't find as easily even in other issues this decade, is how much it reads like a plea. It's everywhere to be seen in the magazine from the 20 Dumbest themselves, Charlie Sheen in "Sheen Lantern" at #6, Donald Trump (the "Birther King") at #14 for demanding proof of President Obama's citizenship, "The Amazingly Dangerous Spider-Play" at #18 asking "Is there a Dr. Octopus in the house?". It's in the "MAD Look at Protests", a beautiful commentary on the ease which we've simply defanged the very idea of protest. It's even to be found in Kit Lively and Scott Nickel's near-expressionist comic strip, "The Dork Side". A painfully wonderful use of the concept of the dark age of toymaking as a searing critique on the fractured state of the national psyche right now.

It's not a sense of loss you feel when you read MAD's "20 Dumbest of 2011". It's a sense of less. That this is far less than there ought to be, that we're in some ways contributing to this less-ness, that we're actively engineering our incapacity to "imagine a world", as William Gibson had Mere put it.

Point in case, we spend a long time speaking about Keith Olbermann. About what he represented to liberal politics, about how he became more than just another newsman, and took up the gauntlet thrown down by the Bill O'Reilly's kind of barrage-commentary. "He certainly is a smart guy, he’s a terrific writer. But he read his own press clips", John says, "He certainly self-destructed if you look at his history. It seems that wherever he works he winds up burning bridges behind him".

Listening to this interview now, I'm again struck by that pause John makes, right before diving in with "He certainly self-destructed…". A single beat in the conversation, but one that speaks volumes. Maybe it's because he's still figuring out if I can be trusted, I am press, after all. Or maybe, and this rings truer, its because John is that rare mind that thinks of consequences. The mad, crazy, zany of MAD is so flawless at times. It's the guys holding nothing back, the boys who leave everything out on the table. And yet, every issue is carved with a poignancy and a compassion that is simply incomparable. Every issue being as apposite as it is, that thoughtfulness has to come from somewhere. And it does. It's here, even when MAD's Editor speaks in casual conversation.

Nowhere is this simultaneous sense of there being less (and participating in there being less), and this sense of compassionate eye for consequence than when John speaks about Joe Paterno.

We spend what feels like the bulk of interview talking about Joe Paterno and the events that played out at Penn State. By the time we eventually do loop around to Keith Olbermann the differences between the two kinds of Dumb are stark. Talking with John, it's clear that with Olbermann there's a sense of personal failure, of self-destructiveness. Olbermann presented a very different kind of promise, the promise of being a staunch, vociferous defender of liberal values.

When we get to it, John will say, "And I think he [Olbermann] was interesting in that he gave voice when he first came on MSNBC to a progressive left wing of the electorate that nobody was speaking to and taking up their cause in forceful ways in the way that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and [Glenn] Beck were doing and I think he suddenly just got too full of himself. And it’s something we always worry about MAD, especially when we do this '20'.

"At the end of the day we are still a humor magazine, while we do do politics and satire, we like to make people laugh. I mean that’s our number one mission, when you pick up a copy of MAD are you laughing? And I think he just sorta exploded himself, or imploded himself, and he’s marginalized himself. I used to watch his show, and my cable company doesn’t carry Current TV, so I haven’t seen one of his rants now in quite a while"

It's sense of betrayal of promise, of a failure bred in the bone because of personal weakness that I hear John identify with Olbermann. Earlier in the interview, compared with Penn State and Joe Paterno, the sense is completely different.

By now you know the story of Penn State well, even if you're disinclined towards sports. Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was found allegedly in an inappropriate position with a minor in the Penn State locker room. The news cycle spun quickly. Evidence broke that suggested this wasn't the first such incident, that Sandusky had previously been found in similar situations. That on those occasions, Sandusky had been reported.

The target of the Dumb of Penn State, is not the evil of child molestation, but the evil of covering it up. It ranks at #3 on the list, "Covering for a Pedophile: We Are Penn State!". This Dumb is laid out as the parody of the promotional poster for the 2009 movie, The Blind Side. I remember watching it in an almost empty theater with She Who Snored Earlier In This Piece. I recall being punched in the arm in something of a preemptive strike to hide tears that were already falling. No problem, I was on the brink of tears myself.

We didn't know it back then, but The Blind Side wouldn't only be a return to form for Sandra Bullock, it would be a push beyond what we'd come to expect of her on her best day. Beyond the sappy cuteness of Demolition Man, beyond the steely-eyed grace-under-fire of Speed and later of The Net, well past the missing-in-action of Two Weeks' Notice and the hand-from-the-grave Premonition, it would be The Blind Side that would show us Sandra Bullock's true colors. She'd go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress. But for me the entire movie would always revolve around that single line, "I want to go to Old Miss, because my family went to Old Miss". The idea of recognizing the self in the other until the fear of those supposed monsters-under-the-bed simply bleeds away.

To use that movie to parody the Dumb of the events at Penn State, to use the Penn State school chant right up front, communicates some of the sense of pure disillusion in what had always been an institution. Joe Paterno, many senses, did imagine a world. It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that it is because of him, that the very idea of the college football scholarship exists in the form it does today. When Coach Joe began at Penn State he insisted on his team excelling academically as well as on the field. Honor codes were installed. Coach Joe built the professionalization of college football almost singlehandedly. The idea that this kind of thing could happen on his watch was just literally the end of a world.

"Paterno broke very late in our editorial cycle", John begins up again. "The Paterno piece we were sitting with and we knew we had to be careful with it. Because the last thing you want is for a piece to be misinterpreted, and have a reaction like , 'My God!, they're making fun of pedophilia'. That is not our intent. MAD never does a victim humor. MAD makes fun of dumb things, makes fun of people who do dumb things, who make fun of the powerful who do dumb things. And, this idea came to us, and we turned it over to Scott Bricher, and he immediately got it. He just sent us a sketch of what he was going to do, and two days later he staged the photo and sent it in. It was just right there. We were extremely pleased with the way it came out.

"If you look at it closely, he was able to project a vulnerability in the boy's body language. We wanted to have Sandusky grabbing the boy, but we didn't want him grabbing the boy's behind. We thought that was just too distasteful. But yet somehow show that he was exercising that power that adults have over kids.

"We needed to show that kids are still kids. Especially and impressionable 10-year old boy. Scott solved it by just putting Sandusky's arm around the boy's neck the way he did. He just really telegraphed the message we were trying to get at. So we're very pleased with that. I think it's probably visually the most arresting piece of the '20'. And the most damning on many levels".

I don't want to leave it there but I do. There's pith, poignance. Anything more would be entertainment. And if there's anything to know about MAD, about John and about the entire Usual Gang of Idiots, it's that while you might sometimes howl at how entertaining they are, they are not, the entertainment.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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